Monday, October 3, 2011
Kick Like a Muley
Cliff and Tom, the Hanson brothers, scratched their heads and frowned. Any other time the trophy buck in the bed of their truck would have drawn a crowd. Especially in a backwoods town like Talbot’s Peak, Montana. This far off the interstate, the place must be chocked full of hunters. People should be oogling their kill’s rack or grumbling with envy.
Kasey, the Hanson sister, didn’t give two hoots about hunter adoration. She hugged herself against the morning chill and eyed the coffee shop across the street with longing.
“Are we going to get breakfast any time soon?” she finally asked.
“In a minute,” Cliff snapped. “Cripes. What’s with these people?”
“Maybe they’re all pissed because we showed ‘em how it’s done,” Tom suggested.
“Maybe they’re all pissed because it’s not deer season,” Kasey pointed out. “You’re not going to get any awards, you’re going to get arrested. Put a tarp over that thing and let’s go eat.”
“In a minute,” Cliff repeated. “I’m not leaving until somebody makes a comment.”
“We’ve gotten comments,” Kasey said. “Or are you waiting for ‘You’re under arrest’?”
“I meant a real comment. If I hear ‘Are you gonna eat that?’ one more time, I’m punching somebody.”
Kasey noticed he didn’t mention the snarled “Murderers!” their kill had garnered. Or that one kid, who’d rushed up to the truck with a stricken look and a gasped, “Uncle Johnny?” He’d walked away relieved, but not before he shot all three of them the filthiest look she’d ever seen on a teenager, and teens were masters of the scowl. If these people were hunters, they wouldn’t appreciate poachers in their turf. Why couldn’t her moronic brothers see that?
She didn’t want to be here. She hated hunting. She hated meat and anything to do with meat. She wanted to go back to the dude ranch and ride into the mountains in search of the rumored unicorn. Instead she was stuck here, shivering and hungry, with the Two Stooges. She’d had no idea what they’d been up to on their own vacation until she’d seen the carcass in the trunk.
“That’s it,” she said, and marched off. “You bozos do whatever you want. I’m getting breakfast.”
“Get back here!” Cliff made a grab for her, but she dodged him easily and sprinted up the block. She had her eye on a little place tucked in between a dress shop and a newspaper office, with a picture of a bighorn sheep and the word “diner” over the door. She ducked inside and paused to catch her breath.
And what a breath it turned out to be, heavy with fried, boiled, baked and toasted food odors, not a one tainted with meat. Kasey drew in a second, longer, more indulgent breath and let it sigh free.
The stocky, middle-aged woman behind the counter smiled at her. “Morning, honey. Get you something?”
“You don’t serve meat here, do you?”
A tiny frown line appeared between the woman’s brows. “Not in my diner. You want meat, try Vinnie Mac’s across the street. We’re herbivore-only here.”
Kasey sighed again. “I’m home. You serve pancakes?”
That brought a laugh from the woman. “We don’t use that word in polite company. I can get you flapjacks. Best in the state.”
“Second best. The coffee shop’s got me beat there. I’m trying to steal their recipe.”
“In that case,” Kasey said, heading for a booth, “I’ll have a plate of blueberry flapjacks and a – ”
The door swung open and Cliff charged in, Tom at his heels. Cliff grabbed her arm. “What the hell you think you’re doing, sis? Let’s go.”
“Beat it. I’m having breakfast. Go pose by your stupid dead deer.” Kasey tried to wrench free, but Cliff had clamped on like a bulldog. “Let go of me, you jerk!”
The woman came around the counter, at a slight crouch and with head lowered, like a ram about to charge. “No fights in my place, boys. Let the lady go.” She peered up at the men. “So you’re the boys who shot the deer? You know this is all private land around here, right? No outside hunters, not even in season. Which this isn’t, by the way. Didn’t they tell you that when you came in?”
“Some cop said something when he checked our licenses. I wasn’t listening all that hard.” Cliff didn’t sound one bit worried about possible game law violations. He sucked in his gut and loomed over the woman. All Kasey could think of was how much he looked like a target.
The woman shook her head. “Bambi’s gonna kick your ass.”
“Why? Because we shot his dad?” Cliff guffawed. “Cripes. This whole town is screwy. C’mon, Kase, we’re out of here.”
He turned to drag her out, but found the doorway blocked by two men in ranger uniforms. Even though the man in the lead appeared to be built out of concrete blocks, it was his smaller, slender companion who caught and held Kasey’s attention. Her stare went straight to his eyes, huge orbs the color of melted dark chocolate. Caught up in his eyes, she almost missed the rest of him: a long, pleasant face, slim hips, sure, silent movements like a stag gliding through a forest. The ears took her by surprise; they stuck out of his sandy-brown hair and almost appeared to swivel. He noticed her interest and nodded politely. Kasey made a grunt and looked away.
The brick wall of a ranger looked beyond Cliff to the woman. “It’s okay, Ma,” he said. “It’s nobody we know. I think it’s a realie. Looks like Ol’ Scratch. Local muley,” he continued to Cliff. “Got his name because of the rubs he leaves all over the trees. Or he did until somebody shot him.”
Ever the pragmatist, Cliff turned from the brawny ranger to his less-imposing partner. “So what? It’s just a damn deer. The Constitution says I can carry a gun and hunt anywhere I want to. It’s my God-given right as an American.”
“Not in this town,” the ranger with the liquid eyes said. He flashed a badge, as did his partner. “Wildlife Control Officers Buck and Ewing. You’re coming with us to the sheriff’s office.”
“The hell I am.” Cliff took a swing at WCO Buck. Buck wasn’t there to receive it. He just seemed to slide out of the way. His leg shot out and caught Cliff square in the gut. Cliff hit the floor and lay there, groaning. Neither the woman nor WCO Ewing made any move to help him.
Tom gaped down at his brother. Also a pragmatist, he said quickly, “This was all his idea. I was against it from the start. Tell them, Kasey.”
“Tell them what? I spent the last week on a dude ranch. How was I supposed to know you two would decide to be stupid again?”
“You’re not implicated, miss,” Buck said. “All the witnesses agree it was two monkeys – I mean, two men in a pickup truck. We will be pressing charges, though. Here in Talbot’s Peak we take our hunting seriously.”
“From both ends,” Ewing added drily. He lifted Cliff off the floor with one arm and no elaboration, leaving Kasey to wonder what he meant by that remark. His other arm locked onto Tom, who wisely put up no resistance. “You too, miss,” he said to Kasey.
“Hold on, Hannibal,” the woman spoke up. “This poor girl hasn’t had her breakfast yet.”
“Aw, c’mon, Ma, I’m working.”
“And what’s she going to do? Sit on her thumbs while Busby crosses all his little t’s? She can go through a stack of flapjacks and still get there in time to post bail.”
“I’ll guard her,” Buck offered. “See that she doesn’t make a break for it.”
Ewing snorted at them both. “You know where we’ll be. Ma, can you whip me up a couple of those apple fritters of yours? Bambi can bring ‘em over.” He escorted his prisoners from the diner.
Kasey watched a blush grow on Buck’s face. “Bambi?”
“A nickname. I thought it would go away after high school. My real name’s Gary Buck.” He took her hand and thought, What lovely fingers. And what a lovely smell. Not a whiff of meat or grease marred it, unlike the bulk of the humans he came across. His ears tipped forward, not enough to alarm her. Normally he didn’t swing with monkeys, but this woman’s scent, as fresh as a doe’s, made him reconsider. “Buy you breakfast?”